Bringing Learning to Life through Service
Kielsmeier, Jim, Middle Ground
Society faces pressing problems on many fronts today. Economic crises mean more families require assistance to meet basic needs, environmental degradation contributes to natural disasters, and disparities in educational opportunities leave some communities at risk.
Luckily, some of the best minds in our nation are in our midst, tackling these issues and more. You'll find these change agents in middle schools across the United States: students learning science, history, economics, and language arts as they accomplish important work for their communities.
Many of these students are in schools that are part of the National Youth Leadership Council's growing Generator School Network, a community of schools where teachers and administrators have committed to integrating the powerful pedagogy of service-learning across disciplines as a way to enliven learning.
For example, students at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast, Maine, tackle both hunger and environmental concerns, growing fresh produce for a local food bank. What began as a relatively simple garden project, designed to save land from becoming a bus parking lot, has developed into an important local resource.
On little more than an acre, students last year grew more than three tons of produce, according to teachers Steven Tanguay and Jon Thurston. The garden has become a real-world learning lab for students to investigate such diverse topics as poverty and hunger, soil composition, greenhouse temperature control, wholesale vs. retail pricing, watersheds, and local history.
At Harry Hurst Middle School in Destrehan, Louisiana, students drive an effort to preserve the state's wetlands. Through the LaBranche Wetland Watchers service-learning project, science teacher Barry Guillot and his team of educators work with 1,100 students each school year in grades 5-7 on service trips to their adopted wetland site in the Bonnet Carre Spillway.
Throughout the school year, students plan and conduct water quality monitoring, collecting and identifying macro-invertebrates, cleaning up litter, identifying soil and plants, and planting trees. Each year, students choose to focus on something new for the project. For example, last year, they worked to initiate the first public nature trail in the region. Students educate other students and adults in their community about what they've learned about wetland conservation in their investigations, reaching nearly 50,000 people to date.
Sixth graders at the Barack and Michelle Obama Service-Learning Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota, tackled two of the weightiest issues in education: early literacy development and improving access to postsecondary education. As part of National Literacy Week, students investigated how young children learn to read and then partnered with a local bookstore to put together baskets of information and resources for low-income families with children ages 1-4.
According to teacher Tiffany Berg, upon learning how few of the students in their neighborhood go on to postsecondary education, the sixth graders investigated ways to make college more accessible, interviewing panels of students and teachers from a variety of local postsecondary institutions and then putting together a community presentation about what they learned.
A New Look at Education
The stories of the contributions young people are making to our world provide the evidence we need to advocate for a different kind of school, a new way of teaching, and a new way of learning that can help students succeed and communities prosper.
Education isn't necessarily only about the future and what young people will accomplish when they grow up, it is also about what they are capable of doing now with the knowledge and skills they possess. Like the students from the Generator Schools, young people across the United States and around the world are showing us the way.
But beyond these inspiring examples, research, too, shows that high-quality service-learning can have quantifiable, positive impacts on students. …